Written by John Short
Forty years ago, a versatile athlete from tiny Lac La Biche, Alta., took control of the curling program at NAIT.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And it would be much less colourful if not for the intense and ongoing commitment of Jules Owchar.
Now recognized as one of the outstanding coaches at any and all levels of the sport he loves most, he had expected to be using this quiet holiday-time segment of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference calendar to prepare for, among other things, a trip to the coming Olympics in South Korea as a valued coach with the Brad Gushue foursome that entered the Canadian trials as the favourite after winning the 2017 Brier at Gushue's Newfoundland home.
But a stretch of brilliant curling by Edmonton's Kevin Koe rink in the Roar of the Rings in December cancelled what would have been Owchar's second Olympic experience. He joined the crew skipped by Kevin Martin – a protege who first hooked up with the great coach at NAIT -- in a victory celebration after the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
Martin, not incidentally, insists that Owchar gets too little credit for his role in Martin becoming one of the greatest skips and shotmakers in world curling history. "I went to NAIT because of Jules," he said. "It was a perfect decision for me."
Says Owchar: "It would have been great to go the Olympics again, but a lot of people don't even get there once."
He received an surprise two weeks ago when he was inducted into the first Sports Hall of Fame of the community where his serious involvement in sports got started more than 70 years ago.
"That's an honour," he said. "I was involved in a lot of sports around Lac La Biche; a lot of it included baseball," where he was known as an aggressive hitter and athletic second baseman.
After becoming part of the NAIT sports picture in 1969, Owchar quickly took leadership of the golf program which collected numerous ACAC medals before it was discontinued three years ago as part of financial adjustments that have become common throughout college sports across Canada.
"I enjoyed working with the young golfers," he said. "Mount Royal had most of the championships (26) but we won eight, and that's a lot for a school in this part of Alberta."
Almost all ACAC medal collections are dwarfed by NAIT's curling success: 37 provincial titles, including three provincial titles for former students, including Martin in who also won the national junior crown in 1984. "Some people forget he also finished second in the nationals the following year."
The Owchar-Martin partnership reached its first Brier milestone with a victory at Hamilton in 1991. It was followed by "quite a big thrill" at Albertville, France, in 1992 when curling existed at the Olympics only as a demonstration sport.
In all, Jules has attended 15 Briers and more than once played in championship games when one team or another needed a temporary replacement. In addition to his work with Martin and Gushue, he once supported Edmonton's Kenny Hunka, who played well at times but came home without a medal.
"When I first got interested in this game, I was hoping to go to maybe one Brier," Owchar said. "I guess I've been busy."
During a lengthy discussion at the Avonair Curling Club, right across the street from NAIT, Owchar was often interrupted by friends and staff members. "I've been here a lot," he smiled ruefully. "I curl maybe 60 games a year, and my three NAIT teams (men, women and mixed) come here to practice." A lot of his effort as the ACAC curling convenor for 20 years involved coffee breaks at the Avonair.
He also volunteers countless times when novices or experts ask him for input. "Kevin and I believe in sharing everything we know about the game," he said. This fact explains why teams and individuals from Denmark, Sweden, and Japan have come to Alberta for help, and always received it.
The game is not growing as fast as supporters would like. "We used to get dozens and dozens of NAIT students at curling classes," he recalled. "We don't have formal classes anymore but when we call for kids to try out, we don't get many."
Fortunately, the shotmaking quality at top levels continues to improve. Owchar mentioned Gushue, Brad Jacobs, Koe and Mike McEwen among the best on the male side. Jennifer Jones and Rachel Homan are only two of a large and talented group of female stars.
These days, the veteran coach – "I started just as a teacher years ago" – faces inevitable questions about retiring. He does not look forward to such a day.
"I'll be available to help for as long as I can," was his simple message at the end of the conversation.